Your father died. I read his obituary in my regular trolling through that section of our hometown’s newspaper. Neither of us lives there anymore. Your father’s face was the same: a mug, really, the grin like a caricature of a grin. One summer, he fired up the charcoal grill. Your mother mixed breadcrumbs into the hamburger to stretch it for all of you kids. He got all meat. He had worked all day. It was hot and he was home, grilling hamburgers. You were going to eat at the picnic table. These were the kinds of things — stretching food, eating outside, using a charcoal grill, — that seemed impossibly exotic to me. This was a life I peered into. I, I’m almost certain, walked back home through the woods to supper at my own house. But his face. I knew it instantly despite the white hair, the years. I remembered how he liked to dance.
In class I asked my students what about A Prayer for Owen Meany could be considered Dickensian. So many characters to keep track of, they said, also subplots, tangents, the needless journeys Irving takes his readers on after he writes: You shall see. (Dickens, they remember, had an excuse to drag things out. The man needed a paycheck. But Irving?) They said: Oh! and the overabundance of coincidence.
I didn’t expect you to have a Facebook page and, it turns out, you don’t use it much. But there you are. Speaking of familiar faces. I have no idea what you’ve done with your life. Have only heard bits and pieces from my family who see you every few years. Their happiness at reuniting with you silences me. What should I tell them? That I don’t want to know what you said? That it doesn’t help me to know? That the life I lead now is the life that happened after/because-of/in response to you? I was fifteen years old. We were friends and then we weren’t.
You decided (and I don’t blame you for this, even all these years later) that we wouldn’t be friends anymore, that you had chosen another friendship, instead, that I had left you no choice. Could you have had any idea what the reverberations of your decision would be? Whatever ideas I had of friendship were flawed and I had no idea how to fix them. For a long time, my own guilt consumed me. I had a best friend and then I didn’t. It had been my responsibility to protect that friendship, but I hadn’t.You were not like me. In all the best ways, you were not, and so, you went.
My daughter comes in to my bedroom to say good-night. I’m reading without my contacts on which means I hold the book up to my nose and can’t see past my knees, but I put my glasses on when she doesn’t move from the mantle to sit on my bed. “Have you been crying?” I ask. She never cries, but she has been. She starts again. I can’t imagine her, a teenager very unlike the one I was: confident, athletic, connected, this upset. She has been on the phone for hours, caught in a web that is one part her doing, one part the betrayal of two people she loves and who she feels have betrayed her. Two friends she has know since nursery school. “All this time you have been talking to them?” I ask. She says her hands are shaking, that at least one of them won’t take her call, another won’t listen, a third, a stranger, really, is texting her things so overblown, she thinks the best thing to do is to ignore them all finally. “And you’ve been crying. All this time.”
What a quiet house I thought it had been. Me with my book. The other girls doing homework. Dennis reading the newspaper by the woodstove downstairs. No one answers a phone that never rings, no one drags the cord around a corner until it threatens to snap, slides down the wall to sit against the baseboard so she can have some privacy.
In my mother’s house, the phone didn’t ring, either. For a different reason, of course. She asked about you. She hadn’t trusted me to be a good friend. I have never asked why. The dissolution of our friendship did not surprise her, but she was disappointed in me, angry even. Once I said, “I miss her,” and my mother said, harshly, without looking at me, “I miss her, too.”
A Prayer for Owen Meany, is a story about friendship. Owen kills John’s mother accidentally and that night, John gives him his most prized possession, a stuffed armadillo. He wants Owen to understand: no hard feelings. This is one thing that happened to us, his gesture said, but there will be others.
My daughter worries about who she will have lunch with the next day. Outside, a March wind gusts. January air three days before spring. I say she doesn’t have to go to school the next day. “And then what?” she says. “Then the day after that is the worst day of my life?” Dennis says, “Don’t imagine what you went through and what she is going through are the same.” I’ve prepped her, have prepped all my daughters, for this. Keep your circle of friends wide, I tell them. Instead of this friend – these friends; Instead of this group – these groups. My own mother hoards canned goods. She remembers what it’s like to go hungry.
Know this: Sometimes, even now, I can’t believe them – Cindy, Lauren, Teresa, Jon. Jeanne K, Jeanne B, Melissa. Rob. Robin. Cathy Lange. Kathy D. Rebecca, Brenda, Sarah. Anne, Holly, Colleen. Karyn and Sue, Dennis’s friends who have become mine too, college friends, knit night women, and book club members, colleagues, former students, old friends from fair days, new friends from my writing life, from the sidelines where I watch my daughters be the kind of women I wish I had been. The names of these people are always a prayer for me, full of disbelief, full of thanks.
The practice essay for the AP exam this week asked students to consider the theme of sacrifice. They chose Sydney Carton, the Mirabal sisters, Owen Meany. What about Owen’s friend, John? one of them asked. Didn’t he sacrifice, too? His whole life after Owen died was filled with tirades. He never even had a relationship. Yes, some agreed. Whenever I got to John’s parts, I skimmed as fast as I could.